Indeed, as many a Russian leader has discovered, it is much easier to keep things under control closer to home, and Putin has in recent weeks moved ahead with his apparent plan to bring Media-Most, Vladimir Gusinsky’s rebellious media group, to heel. The head of state himself, of course, completely denied having anything to do with Media-Most’s sea of troubles, noting piously that he and other members of the government should stay out of disputes between “economic subjects” like the one that is raging between Media-Most and Gazprom, its main creditor. Putin also claimed he had been as shocked and outraged as anyone to find out that Mikhail Lesin, his press minister, had added his signature to an agreement between Gusinsky and Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh signed last July, by which Gusinsky agreed to sell Media-Most to Gazprom in return for an end to criminal prosecutions against him. However, Boris Nemtsov, the head of the Union of Right-Wing Forces faction in the State Duma, said he was sure that Putin had been fully aware of Lesin’s role, and that in a meeting with parliamentary leaders several weeks earlier the head of state had been on top of everything involving the Media-Most/Gazprom controversy. Whatever the case, Lesin received nothing more than a public reprimand from Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and said he would under no circumstances tender his resignation.
Meanwhile, as Putin pleaded ignorance and said he would stay out of the Gusinsky-Gazprom battle, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it was launching an investigation into whether Media-Most had, as Gazprom was alleging in a lawsuit, committed criminal embezzlement by sending its shares offshore for safekeeping. Gazprom alleged that among the shares sent abroad were those that Media-Most had put up as collateral for Gazprom-guaranteed loans–an allegation Media-Most denied. The Prosecutor General’s Office, meanwhile, summoned Gusinsky to appear for questioning as a witness in its new investigation, but the tycoon was a no-show. His decision was hardly surprising, given that the last time he was called in for questioning–this past June, in connection with another case–he was jailed briefly in Moscow’s worst prison. The embattled Gusinsky suffered another blow when Sberbank, the state saving bank, nullified a US$100 million loan it had made to Media-Most.
Not surprisingly, few observers doubted as the fortnight drew to a close that Gusinsky’s days as Media-Most’s owner were rapidly coming to an end. This sense that the end was near was enhanced when Rem Vyakhirev, Gazprom’s usually taciturn chief, told reporters that either Media-Most would pay off its debts or Gazprom would take possession of its shares and sell them to the highest bidder. Vyakhirev said a European media holding had already expressed interest in buying Media-Most. Some Russian media speculated that the interested buyer was the German media conglomerate Bertelssman; others said it was not European, but American–Time-Warner. But the newspaper Kommersant actually quoted a source–an anonymous Gazprom official–who said that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had already made inquiries about buying Gusinsky’s creation.